David Gauthier, a modern theorist, is a prominent contractarian whose work is grounded in Thomas Hobbes’ theory of social contracts[1].

Gauthier was born in Toronto in 1932 and received his B.A. Honours in 1954 from the University of Toronto, a Master of Arts in 1955 from Harvard, and a Bachelor of Philosophy in 1957 and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1961 from the University of Oxford. In 1979, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Gauthier was a member of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and is currently Professor Emeritus with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. Gauthier has written a number of books including The Logic of Leviathan, Morals by Agreement, and Rousseau[2].

Gauthier’s Social Contract Theory of Morality

Social contract theory of morality suggests moral standards are derived from social contracts with one another and the state[3].
Hobbesargued rational people understand they are better off to live in a world of cooperation and will “surrender every one of [their] natural rights”, with the exception of self-defense, to a sovereign in order to escape the state of nature [4]. David Gauthier takes Hobbes’ perspective further by focusing on human rationality, in particular their ability to critically assess and reflect upon their choices and possible outcomes, and their desire to maximize utility. And like Hobbes, Gauthier argues that rational people will realize it is in their best interest to respect social contracts and behave morally [5].

Gauthier’s contractarian discussion of morality differs from other theorists as it relies heavily on game and bargaining theory [6]
. Game theory is defined as “…a systematic study of interdependent rational choice…used to explain, to predict and to evaluate human behavior…” where the decisions made and the outcome of choices are affected and influenced by the choices of others [7].

One aspect of Gauthier’s social contract theory can be illustrated using the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game theory scenario which demonstrates a fundamental issue in society – there are times when people, acting rationally and respecting agreements, end up worse off than those who break agreements. Gauthier suggests social contracts are a means of escaping prisoner’s dilemma.

In the prisoner’s dilemma scenario a confession appears to be the rational choice, while refusing to confess appears irrational. Gauthier describes this as the “structural problem of interaction” [8]. He identified two strategies people choose between when faced with this structural problem: straightforward utility maximization or constrained maximization. A straightforward maximizer will choose to maximize personal outcomes while considering the likely strategies of the others involved. The effect of their actions on others is not a priority. On the other hand, constrained maximizers have a mutual understanding/contract and make decisions which maximize each others’ outcomes [9].

From the concept of constrained maximization, Gauthier introduces another theory, the principle of minimax relative concession. As constrained maximizers, individuals will always be in a better position after an agreement is reached; however some individuals receive more benefit than others [10]. Gauthier describes this as a cooperative surplus. His principle of minimax relative concession suggests individuals will cooperate and abide by social contracts when they see their “concessions as reasonable” compared to those made by others. This again reinforces the rationality of acting morally [11].

Criticisms of Gauthier’s theory include its inability to address the issue that not all agreements are worthy of cooperation, and its exclusion of certain groups, i.e. visible minorities, women, children and disabled people, who have historically been viewed as dependant and irrational.

  1. ^ Verbeek, B & Morris, C. (2004). Game theory and ethics. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-ethics, Morals by Agreement section, ¶ 1
  2. ^ David Gauthier Biography. (n.d.) Retrieved September 23, 2008 from http://www.biographybase.com/biography/Gauthier_David.html
  3. ^ Cudd, A. (2007). Contractarianism. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractarianism
  4. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: an introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press, Ltd., p.125
  5. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: an introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press, Ltd.
  6. ^ Verbeek, B & Morris, C. (2004). Game theory and ethics. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-ethics, Morals by agreement section, ¶1
  7. ^ Verbeek, B & Morris, C. (2004). Game theory and ethics. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-ethics, ¶1
  8. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: an introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press, Ltd, p.129
  9. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: an introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press, Ltd.
  10. ^ Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: an introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press, Ltd., p.136
  11. ^ Cudd, A. (2007). Contractarianism. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractarianism, Morals by Agreement section, 2